This article is based on a draft discussion paper, written in late December 2011, based on the premise that left politics in the UK is in need of some structure different from (or perhaps evolved from) the present ones, with particular reference to the role of the Labour Party. After deliberation and discussion, particularly the excellent discussion at the Friday Room meeting “The Bradford Spring”, I now take the view that, although changing structures are important, the primary question is the one posed at that meeting, namely the question of balance between the Labour Party on the one hand and, on the other hand,
- the seemingly-inevitable-plethora of left parties and groups,
- new movements such as “Occupy”
- resurgent trade unionism, focussing on opposing cuts and “austerity” with particular reference to pensions
- broad movements against particular manifestations of this government’s virulent neo-liberalism, such as “reforms” in the NHS and Education
- the gamut of organisations based on community, faith, environment, sexuality etc. etc. , not to mention
- the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, plus Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, which are all clearly well to the left of centre.
My point of view is informed by my membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1966 to its dissolution in 1991 (1), and of the Labour Party from 1993 to the present (including 12 years as a borough councillor in a ward with noticeable pockets of deprivation). About 35-40 years ago, the CPGB arrived at a formulation which it called “The Broad Democratic Alliance” in which it envisaged a growing alliance between all of those groups, as outlined above, whose objective interests are in opposition to our present form of capitalism based on the jungle of The Market dominated by huge global conglomerates and finance capital. In the “Bradford Spring” meeting, a few participants leaned more-or-less heavily towards “Labourism” , the view that all else is peripheral to achieving the hegemony of the Labour Party. But my conclusion, which I believe is more in tune with that of the majority of the meeting, including that of the guest speaker Wayne Muldoon , a member of the Respect National Council, is that we need a new broad democratic alliance which would include a transformed or at least transforming Labour Party.
There is also a view, with or without the Labour Party, that we need a new broad left political party. I will continue by considering the implications of this view:
In this context, a key question is, “To what extent would a new left party be based on a particular ideology, in the way that communist parties were based on Marxism or Scientific Socialism, or the way that the Green Party cannot shake off their view of the primacy of environmental issues?”
Given that, in our hegemonic society, the idea of a seizure of power by insurrection is laughable, there would be little point in a party that was unelectable. A new left party would need, sooner rather than later, to have a realistic chance of getting a significant body of MPs elected . But in the UK, the FPTP electoral system (2), renders achieving this from scratch extremely difficult. Restriction to what would be seen as a narrow ideology would compound the difficulty. On the other hand, there would also be no point if the new party were as broad a church as the Labour Party, since it would have no distinctive role. It would not, at least initially, have any of the historical links – in particular, the close link to the trade union movement – from which the Labour Party benefits (or not? Would the lack of such links be an asset rather than a drawback?)
The SDP took off because it already had MPs, and it had the advantage that its purpose was to move the political centre of gravity to the right. In our hegemonic “liberal” capitalism, moving that centre to the left is hugely more difficult. Any new left party could not merely be built from below; a base within the existing polity would also be essential. But where is such a base coming from? As with the SDP, there would need to be substantial support from influential and leading figures in the Labour Party. I would not argue that achieving this is impossible, but I can see no signs of it at the moment.
About six years ago, I decided to join the pressure group Compass, not because I thought it was the “ultimate answer” but because it seemed to me to be easily the nearest thing we had to the light at the end of the tunnel, a tunnel from which, for many years, there had seemed to be no light and no escape. The policy positions being developed by Compass have a coherent and consistent social democratic and anti-neo-liberal direction. In fact, I think they are in general very close to what a reincarnated CPGB would have been putting forward, not in terms of historical-term goals, but as real-politic alternatives to the relentless neo-liberalism which the leaderships of all three large “mainstream” parties now take as read. Numbers of fairly prominent politicians on what we would call “The Broad Left”, such as Jon Cruddas (Labour) and Caroline Lucas (Green), have associated themselves with Compass, alongside media figures like Polly Toynbee, John Harris and the Compass Chair, Neal Lawson. But there is also a tendency, apparently almost inevitable, for power to corrupt, in the political sense, a good example being Chuka Umunna who has noticeably shifted to the right since becoming an MP, and is now (surprise, surprise!) a front bench spokesperson. Compass supported Ed Miliband for the Labour leadership, as the best of a bad bunch. Miliband’s position can be described as a softer version of, rather than any real challenge to neo-liberalism. Although Compass still sees its single biggest task as contributing to the transformation of the Labour Party, it has, since January 2011, opened its membership without organisational restriction.
The next key question is, “How would any new left party be an advance on Labour?”
The Labour Party had Clause Four and still says that it is a “democratic socialist” party. But this “socialism” is, and always has been, a very different animal from the socialism that was defined in the CPGB programme “The British Road to Socialism”. And the Labour Party eschews ideology and historico-political theory, and so reduces itself to a pragmatic electoralism in which it is rarely sure what it wants to be elected for except to oppose the Tories. It was formed to represent the working class in the legislature, but leaders with a working class background are the exception, (Ed M’s difficulty in looking like an effective Labour leader may have something to do with the plum in his mouth) and whatever the working class is now, it is not what it was either at the time of Labour’s formation or even what it was in my 60s and 70s political youth. Having said this, it is relevant to mention that the Labour Party has, in its organisational and financial links with the affiliated trades unions, a important characteristic (whether an asset or otherwise) not shared with any other party in the world. Although some trades unions have never been affiliated and some have disaffiliated, the link is still strong, and very significant financially. The unions still exert considerable influence in the Party generally, although the leadership, for fear of electoral negatives (under FPTP) has, particularly in the last 40+ years, been keen to distance itself from the TU association. claiming to lead a party for “all of the people” (even the filthy rich!) . From “In Place of Strife” (a 1969 Labour Government white paper -see Wikipedia article) onwards, they have effectively supported neo-liberal legislation designed to seriously limit the ability of unions to collectively defend and extend their members’ interests. (although it has to be said that the unions themselves could and should have acknowledged and rectified their own democratic deficit).
The Labour Party’s high point was the 1945-51 Atlee Government which, in spite of the strong right-wing influence(even then) and in spite of (or, to some extent because of?) the aftermath of WWII, oversaw huge achievements in all key areas of society, with policies underpinned by a Keynsian economic view which, for a further decade or so, even became the dominant consensus under a Tory government . But either side of this zenith, it has been timid and/or relatively ineffective. Under Wilson in the 60s it was diverted by silly slogans like “The White Heat of the Technological Revolution”, and, under Wilson and Callaghan in the 70s, while the Tory neo-liberals were busy plotting their assault, the Labour Party simply lost its way. Its reaction to the Thatcherite assault was at first, at least in general perception, fundamentalist, and then, at the opposite extreme, one of accepting neo-liberalism and in fact embracing and absorbing of it.
Is there any way to guarantee that any new broad left party would not go down a 21st-century version of these paths? Rather than try to answer this, I will pose another, perhaps even more far-reaching question: Will that matter if there is another zenith at least as hegemonic as the “post-war settlement”?
Thatcher triumphantly proclaimed that her aim was to “wipe socialism off the face of the political map”. Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron have continued and reinforced that project to the extent that even getting social democracy (let alone a fundamentally different society which Compass calls “The Good Society” or which had been defined as “Socialism”) back onto the centre stage of politics would be a massive achievement. A social democratic revolution would require a consensus akin to the “post-war settlement”, perhaps having its electoral expression in isolation of the Tories in the face of an overwhelming centre-left alliance. If that could be achieved, it would perhaps be even more agenda-setting than either 45-51 or the present neo-liberal consensus, in which case the new left formation will have done its job. We would at last not just be seeing the light but actually out of the tunnel in as permanent a way as we could presently envisage.
So how do we work to lay the foundations of such a “revolution” ? I now believe that the diversity of our present society invalidates the idea that the left can, for the foreseeable future, work as an homogenous whole. When questioned as to whether Respect’s success in Bradford could be reproduced elsewhere, Wayne Muldoon replied that, in the immediate future, there were certainly pockets of possibility for Respect, just as there are for the Green Party and one or two other left groups. If at the next election, there were handfuls of Respect and Green MPs, a solid bloc of left-leaning Scottish, Welsh and Irish Nationalists, and perhaps one or two like-minded others, perhaps there would be the basis for a left alliance of the type we have seen in other countries of Europe and elsewhere ; perhaps this, together with a more pluralist Labour Party (and perhaps even a left breakaway from the Libdems, based on the Social-Liberal Forum) rather than the prospect of a new broad left party, could be the political core of a new Broad Democratic Alliance.
Geoff Gay 18.05.12.
Is it possible or desirable that we, together with our natural successors, could re-assemble? Relevant to this, I have started to read “After The Party (Reflections on Life since the CPGB)” published by Lawrence and Wishart